Drug trade at sea undermines democracy in East Africa

East Africa plays an increasingly significant role in the global drug trade. Heroin is shipped from Afghanistan via a network of maritime routes stretching along East and Southern Africa. Known as the ‘southern route’, this corridor is increasingly used by drug traffickers as a route for illicit shipment to Europe.

This expansion of the heroin trade has also been driven by the rapid growth of opium production in Afghanistan: resulting in a perfect storm of supply and demand. A new ENACT research paper analyses how this illicit trade has become embedded in societies along the southern route.

‘Up to now, much of the focus has been on how heroin shipped along the southern route reaches Europe. This perspective tends to downplay the impact of the trade on transit countries in Africa,’ says Simone Haysom, one of the co-authors of the paper titled The heroin coast: a political economy along the eastern African seaboard.

The East African heroin market is best understood as an integrated regional criminal economy based on the transit of heroin from Afghanistan to the West. Reliant on the protection of political elites, it has been shaped by, and in turn, shapes politics across the region.

Drug trade and consumption

Impacts are severe. The heroin trade feeds a system of criminal governance in each country along the coast, tying political figures, parties and prospects for democracy to the illicit economy.

There is also a substantial and growing domestic heroin consumer market. The World Drug Report 2017 found that Africa is currently experiencing the sharpest increase in heroin use globally. This fuels violence and has important public health impacts.

New policy approaches are urgently called for, and the relationship between politics, business and organised crime must be adequately understood and addressed. This points to a need for innovative research that can fill the gaps in the collection of key data.

Further analysis

A second ENACT research paper uses media monitoring to help illustrate trends in drug trafficking in the region south of the Horn of Africa. By analysing drug-related incidents reported in the media over the past decade, this paper provides insights into the different drug types in circulation across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, quantities and trafficking methods used, as well as the origin, transit, and destination hubs.

‘Our findings showed interesting patterns not only in the drug trade, but also in the reporting of major harmful drugs in the region,’ says Ciara Aucoin, author of the paper titled Analysing drug trafficking in East Africa: a media-monitoring approach.

Both papers underline that there is an urgent need to enhance maritime security in combatting the trafficking of narcotics, people, firearms and other – legal and illegal – cargoes. ISS senior researcher and maritime expert, Timothy Walker, describes how a common, cross-border response is key in disrupting maritime crimes. ‘States are now exploring ways of dealing with these threats in a comprehensive manner. But this is complicated by limitations on the capacity to respond, and significant differences in how states prioritise maritime security,’ says Walker.

Tags : East AfricaHeroinHorn of AfricaKenyaTanzania